Sounding Poetry

The Kinetic Sculpture of Jean-Pierre Gauthier

If Jean-Pierre Gauthier were a playwright, he would be writing tragic comedies. The installations of this Montreal-based kinetic sculptor are so full of humour, pathos and poignancy they are impossible to ignore. You can’t look at them and not be engaged. That a number of them are interactive makes that engagement unavoidable; the closer you get, the more intense is their response to your presence.

One of his most effective sculptures in this regard is Stressato (the parenthetical part of the title is Les serpents samouraïs). To make the sculpture he cut off the legs of an innocuous plywood table, painted what remained black, and connected a series of steel cables to micro-processors activated when a viewer comes close to the edge of the table. The cablesnakes frenetically flip around and encircle one another in a way that is disconcerting. You feel you’re a voyeur looking down into a snake pit during mating season. In Crashes, at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 2007, Gauthier animated nine black garbage-can lids to hover in the air and then descend upon a cushion of pink and white Styrofoam packing peanuts. It was like the gallery space had been invaded by plastic flying saucers. They weren’t doing anything useful, but because plastic is indestructible, you had a sense they would do it forever. It was not an agreeable recognition.

Jean-Pierre Gauthier, Orchestre à géométrie variable, 2014, bows, motors, metal strings, wood, microphones, microcontrollers, abs tubing, speakers, wires, electronics components, variable dimensions, installation view, 2014, Galerie B-312, Montreal. Collection of Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

The delight and distress we feel from Gauthier’s individual sculptures and installations hide the complexity of their making. The more complicated they are, the more assured he has become in their design. Over the course of three decades he has figured out how to make his machines, and he is now regarded as a groundbreaker in the world of lo-tech kinetic art. In the fields of both music and electronics, he is entirely self-taught. As a child he didn’t visit museums, and he admits he only discovered visual art when he was 20 years old.

In the following interview he says that “sound is more important to him than the look of the object itself,” so we are well-advised to engage our ear more than our eye. His sculptures produce everything sound can do: they are cacophonous, melodic, measured, unpredictable, natural and synthetic. He calls what he orchestrates “crazy and disturbing,” and he appreciates what happens “when frenetic agitation becomes musical.” In Effondrements, an installation made in Norway in 2007, the sound resembles a familiar kind of industrial noise, including the clatter of dismembered plastic pails bumping against one another, plastic bags being shaken, or umbrellas wafting down onto bits of Styrofoam. In Thorax a groundswell seems to be emanating from some distant containment; the lowpitched sound in Turbulures is like a muffled siren or wind being forced through a constricting pipe. He rarely knows what his sculptures will sound like, and that aural recognition echoes a larger existential condition. “Unpredictability,” he says, “makes things both beautiful and awful in our lives.”

Orchestre à géométrie variable, 2014, bows, motors, metal strings, wood, microphones, microcontrollers, abs tubing, speakers, wires, electronics components, variable dimensions, installation view, 2016, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Collection of Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

Gauthier’s soundscapes are often not easy on the ears; the squeak of a locker-room door being opened and closed in The Janitor’s Break Time is grating, as is the sound of an aluminum ladder and chairs being dragged across the floor by a halting pulley system in Remue-ménage. Gauthier is omnivorous in his soundings; he will coax them out of anything: a pie plate, a bocce ball, the rattle of chrome shower poles.

While sound privileges sight in his work, the appearance of his sculptures and installations is consistently intriguing. In Battements et papillons he took photographs of the cracks in the asphalt of a Montreal street, transferred them onto the body and lid of a grand piano and then carved the cracked pattern into the wood. When he wrapped the piano in silver insulating tape, it looked like it would be the lead instrument for a band headlined by Liberace and Tim Burton.

Gauthier is committed to transformation and change. It is an aesthetic that encourages critics to view his work through an anthropomorphic lens. His sculptures are always about to be something, while they always already are something. In his Orchestre à géométrie variable there is a small, green rubber tube and wire attached to the end of a red object that waves in the air. It’s as if a shrimp, or some miniscule crustacean, were the conductor in a peopleless chamber orchestra.

Much of the visual effect of his work comes from the honesty and straightforwardness of his material presentation; everything is what it is and nothing is hidden. He could be collaborating with the ghost of William Morris, who insisted on the aesthetic value of showing the function of everything he made. There is beauty in the way things are.

Orchestre à géométrie variable, 2014, detail, installation view, Galerie B-312, Montreal. Collection of Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.

The installation that most effectively connects looking and hearing is his Orchestre à géométrie variable, which is in the collection of Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain. The circuits attached to the wall and the three free-standing tubular sculptures that look like DIY telescopes together produce a wilderness of sounds. The section called L’intrus includes something that resembles high-pitched birdsong; the sound in Rush et roule seems to be coming from a string section where every player is self-conducting; while in Dépression the bows and a turning cymbal that is tapped by a short steel rod become absolutely wild in their playing. There are moments when the orchestra seems to be home to a chattering choir of capuchin and spider monkeys; the rhythms shift from intense aggression to a kind of lyric melody.

I’m altering the title of a 1985 collection of poems by Lorna Crozier when I say that Gauthier has created a world going on without us. “They don’t care about us, they move around and they do their work in a random way,” he says about his machines. He’s right. They don’t need us, but we assuredly need their fragile and awkward anthropomorphism to be reminded what it is like to be fully human. He called his 2008 exhibition at the Akron Museum “Machines at Play.” It is a naming that makes the right connection. The more time you spend with them, the more you realize that his toys are us.

Border Crossings: There is a story that when you were 10 years old, your mother gave you a circuit board and you became absolutely fascinated with the way it worked.

Jean-Pierre Gauthier: Yes, the classic Radio Shack kit. You can do 150 circuits out of one thing. You can make alarm systems` and things like that. That’s where I started with electronics. I worked with it for two years when I was a kid and then lost it. But when I was doing my master’s degree, suddenly all this came back very easily and I started to buy electronic stuff to work on my pieces. At that time, it was 1994–95, there were no classes in programming or electronic art. So it was natural for me to do that. I forgot about what art should be and I started working like a Sunday handyman. I was doing it just for fun without any consideration about art forms.

Hypoxia #7, 2010–2012, metal tubes, aquarium air pump (compressor), expandable braided sleeving, rubber tubes, microphones, speakers, amplifier, electronics, motion sensor, 180 x 214 x 60 cm, installation view, 2012, Galerie des arts visuels de l’Universitié Laval, Quebec.

So you were a hobbyist of sorts?

Yes, but it turned out to be a full-time thing very fast. It became a big wave, and through the process I started to make things that were interconnected.

Was there a moment when you realized that you weren’t only a Sunday hobbyist putting weird things together and that what you were doing could result in art?

When you start to have exhibitions and recognition from the critics, then you think it could be something. My first solo exhibition confirmed that what I was doing was interesting enough to be shown. I was doing casting at one point and I was good at it. I worked that way for the Biennale of Montreal in 2000, which was a special project. It helped me realize there was another way of making sculpture, a way of working with found objects to build other things, like mechanized instruments.

I’m interested in the way your sense of material has evolved. From the beginning, you tended to privilege the everyday and the industrial. Your component parts have a modesty about them.

Yes. I don’t think I would do something in bronze or gold. For me, the commonness of the object is quite important. I think it’s because of my family background. My mother had been a waitress and a cook for years, and then when she got too old to work in those areas, she started cleaning for people. It was sad to see her struggle as she got older and poorer. Also, I was working at that time as a cashier, and when you’re a cashier a lot of your gestures are done automatically. So it made sense to mechanize the common object in a way that referred to normal people who are going through certain mechanized things. It was a sort of alienation.

There is something hopelessly futile about the way that room is being cleaned in Remue-ménage (2007), because in fact it’s not being cleaned at all. Is that a recognition of the futility in a certain kind of work?

Yes, but, to me, there’s something poetic in it. It’s like you’re working really hard at something, and everything could crash down very fast. Just a little thing could dismantle the things you’ve built up all your life. A lot of people end up on the street because of a small thing that happened. They could have been lawyers or whatever, but they easily slip into the street. Not because of drugs; it could be anything. And there’s something in these machines where they obsessively try to accomplish a task, like that broom that moves dirt around but never properly succeeds. But it tries to do it in a graceful way, like a dance. It’s beautiful to see the struggle through the task.

One of the most remarkable things about your installations is their sense of gentle delicacy.

That fragile aspect is very important. It’s a problem for conservation and for museum acquisition because to reinstall them is quite complicated. But it’s very important for me to keep that part.

Colour often comes in because of the materials and the objects you use. At other times you can have a very monochromatic installation. A piece like Le Son de choses (2003) is quite monochromatic, then at other times beautiful bursts of colour come through in the material. Are those conscious aesthetic choices to ratchet up the beauty of the piece?

Marqueurs d’incertitude, 2017, motors, twine, badminton racquet, fishing weight, graphites, metal wire, 213 x 185 x 40 cm, installation view, 2017, ELLEPHANT, Montreal. Photo: Guy L’Heureux.

In some of them, especially for projects where there are tubes and wires in the tubes, like Hypoxia, Thorax, Asservissements, or even Orchestre à géométrie variable, colour is more pronounced. The cables are colour-coded so that I can figure out the circuit.

So it’s practical and not aesthetic.

It is quite practical, but I’m totally conscious of the colour. I could find other ways to code them, through numbers and things, but I choose colour to make it more lively.

You talk about these pieces’ displaying a kind of choreography, which makes me wonder how much beauty matters to you.

It’s not a priority, but it comes in the process. To me, it’s blended together. Sometimes there’s a necessity in the form because of the function I want to give it. It’s like in design where form follows function. I think I’m closer to visual art than design; colour is there to make it alive, to make it interesting for the eyes. But I’ve done a project that didn’t have colour at all. In Turbulures there were aluminum tubes that were blackened with ink, and they looked like they were drawn by HR Giger. It’s not always important, but when I can add some colour, I will. It always comes from the object itself; it’s rarely something that I will paint.

When you talk about your work you emphasize the notion of process, which makes me think you discover the piece in the making, rather than having a predetermined notion about what it will be before you begin construction.

I usually start with a prototype on the table or on the wall that really looks shitty. It doesn’t look like it could end up as a beautiful system in an installation. The beginning of Orchestre à géométrie variable was like that. But when it started to get interconnected, I knew it would become quite interesting because of the network of cables. I don’t bother so much about that network in the studio; that’s something I do on-site. For instance, Orchestre à géométrie variable took two weeks just to set up the wires, because they are made specifically on-site for the length and the design of the wall. So each venue had two weeks of work to reinstall the wires—some had to be shortened; others had to be extended. So, to answer your question, it doesn’t start with a precise drawing of the final work. It’s more a question of things evolving through the process.

How do you decide what will be a wall piece as opposed to a freestanding sculpture, or when the objects should be suspended in space?

It depends on the project. Some of them need to be suspended and some need to be on the wall. Asservissements was meant to be suspended because of where it was shown. I knew when I was making it that it was for a festival and that it would be presented outside in a chapiteau. The objects were suspended on the ceiling of that protected area. So it could be raining or windy and it would work anyway.

Are the pieces flexible, so that you can change the installation if you need to?

Some are flexible; others are not. Orchestre à géométrie variable was meant to adapt to each venue, but now it’s fixed in a permanent configuration because the museum bought it. But it had the name “géométrie variable” because I wanted to be able to show a half or the whole of it. It was possible for me to program it in a way that I could have only one, two or three tubes, or different parts of the installation. That process stopped when the museum bought it.

I’m interested in the way your work evolves. When you make a piece, is there a causal logic that leads you to the next piece, or are they always discrete?

It’s more complicated than that. Sometimes a body of work can generate an idea for another body of work that would grow into a bigger body of work. Sometimes it would generate only one idea and die after that. I often use the metaphor of the banyan tree because I think it illustrates the way my process proliferates, this idea of things that are growing. Any project can generate the possibility for another body of work. So it’s not impossible for me to go back to work that I did 10 years ago or more, because I don’t see any linearity in the process. I see multiplicity. I see things that are always potentially there. I could easily go back and start casting soap objects.

Your drawing machines make me think of Jean Tinguely, or of Rebecca Horn’s painting machines. Did they have any influence or inspiration as you were making your own work?

Inspiration? In a way, but I tried to find my own way because it’s always hard not to work in the same path of other artists. But the artist I discovered when I was making my network installations is Tim Hawkinson. His work is really different from mine but there are things that relate, like the way he works with lo-tech. He never works with a program device; he always works with mechanized timing.

There is also a residue of what I think of as a gentle surrealism in your work. It’s evident in those small vibrating arms of machine parts that move like a conductor’s baton. Maybe I’m just registering a sense of surprise in the apprehension of the work.

Yes, there’s something to the idea of surrealism. I would also say Fluxus in the crazy and disturbing sound that happens sometimes in their installations. There is this febrile agitation in the way the bows strike and stroke the strings. I like it when this frenetic agitation becomes musical. They are doing really fast motion that would make even a virtuoso tired after a while.

Every critic who writes about your work comments on how alive are your installations and the objects in them. They’re either animal- or insectlike, and oftentimes the critics anthropomorphize them. In making the sculptures and when doing the installations, are you thinking in those same terms? I guess I’m asking how conscious you are about invoking the idea that this is a live world that we’re looking at.

I’m always looking for how to make them live in some way. They have a certain personality that gives us a feeling of empathy because some of them are trying hard to perform a task that they don’t do properly, like the cleaning devices. But the mechanized music has a sort of intensity that I think is more interesting than the mechanized orchestras that I’ve seen. I think my things have this kind of intensity in the way the bows are working, the way the devices are rapidly synchronized. It becomes more than mechanized. I think this nervousness that I like makes it almost like a living organism. Even the way I mechanize the lids on the speaker tubes has this really nervous way of clapping.

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Volume 36, Number 4

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #144, published December 2017.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.